Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver

He wasn't much of a boy to look at, this Dolliver boy of ten, trudging off to school every morning in the West Virginia hamlet of Kingwood, where the mountains are so brown in winter and so green in summer. To the master of the little subscription school he was Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver; to the comrades of sport and study he was just plain "Prent," a sturdy little chap, whose hair refused to stay combed, whose clothes showed the rough-and-tumble of play, whose love for the mountains far exceeded his love of arithmetic.

Somebody lost a copy of the "Congressional Record" about that time, —a bound volume, containing many speeches of senators and representatives. "Prent" found it. His boyish imagination was fired. Hour after hour he pored over its pages, committing to memory several of the passages in the speeches.

One day the school committee called, —an auspicious event in the little schoolhouse. Young Dolliver was asked to give a declamation. To the astonishment of all, the boy performed his task with force, vigor, clearness and almost eloquence. Where did he get it ?

"O, I can talk," he declared; "dad's a preacher, you know."

Thus climbed into his first forum the witty, eloquent, magnetic Dolliver, a United States senator from the state of Iowa at forty years of age.

The match of ambition having been thus applied, the young lad studied to greater advantage. A superb mother made sacrifices to aid him. How these American mothers have ever helped ! He took a course at the State University at Morgantown, West Virginia. This was in 1875, and Prentiss was only seventeen when he stepped forth with his diploma in his hand.


At eighteen, he was a country school teacher himself. The scene is laid in Victor Center, Illinois, in a yellow schoolhouse; and, while it is only a stepping-stone in a career full of more exciting episodes, it is worth while to note that the youth of eighteen was able to do what his predecessors had failed to accomplish, —make an orderly, successful school out of a very turbulent lot of youngsters. On one occasion he quelled a fight by simply looking at the combatants.

The law, and the wide, free west captured the young man a few years later, the former for a profession, the latter for a home. Fort Dodge, Iowa, welcomed the little family in 1880, and there the future senator wrestled with life's serious problems in earnest. Inevitably he was drawn into politics, that field which always has use for men of active brain and silvery tongue. Dolliver had both. James G. Blaine, for whom he delivered scores of speeches, predicted, in 1884, that this dark-haired young orator of the west would enjoy a conspicuous future. The prophecy was not long in reaching fulfilment. From 1890, when he was first elected to congress, until 1900, when he took his seat in the senate, he rose steadily in importance as a great leader and debater, until he had no superior in the great forum of the nation.

His wit is one of the most attractive of his gifts. He can tell a story with wonderful effect. His keen sense of humor would have made him a comedian, if nature had not cast his other faculties in a more serious mould. Therefore, his fun only crops out at times.

When I asked him when and where he first began to consider himself famous, he said: —

"My first term in congress gave me my first sense of exaltation. The people up in the Iowa hills had a little lake, and they named it after me. Then a new postoffice was named in my honor, and a colored woman named her baby after me. I began to think of engaging a niche in some temple of fame.

"But, in my second term, I was disillusioned. A climatic disturbance dried up the lake, free delivery wiped out the postoffice, and the child died, —and I found myself back at the very place whence I had started!"


A few years ago Mr. Dolliver was invited to deliver a lecture in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, before the Young Men's Christian Association Lyceum. In each city, the hall was crowded wherein he spoke, some fifteen hundred young men attending. His topic was, "Chances for Young Men."

"That," said he to me, "was a favorite topic with me. I believed in young men, and liked to talk with them, knowing full well that if one can stir them up to energy and ambition, he is doing a grand work in the world.

"Well, I have not changed my opinion since the delivery of that lecture; but, when I got back to Washington to resume my congressional duties, a week later, I began to hear from those particular young men. Letters began to pour in on me. They came in bunches of twos and threes; then in dozens, and finally in basketfuls. Every St. Paul and Minneapolis young man who had heard me declare that this is the young men's age, wrote that he fully agreed with me, —and asked me to get him a government job!"

Mr. Dolliver's services to his party were particularly great in the controversy over the Porto Rican change of front by the administration. The president had, in his message to congress, in December 1899, favored the extending of unrestricted trade opportunities to the Porto Ricans; but, later, seeing that such a course was opposed by many influential persons, and by several strong arguments, he advised the imposition of light duties and the application of the proceeds to the island's own use. In the conflict which at once arose in congress, Dolliver's strong and eloquent plea alone saved the measure from defeat.


When I asked him what the true idea of success is, he replied, without a moment's hesitation:

"Money-making is the cheapest kind of success. It doesn't indicate the highest development, by any means. I will give you a simple illustration, embodied in an incident which occurred this very day. A friend of mine, a professional gentleman of high mental attainments, had been offered a salary of ten thousand dollars a year by a corporation engaged in transportation. He was strongly tempted to take it, for he is working for the government at a salary of only five thousand dollars. He admitted to me, however, that he is capable of far greater usefulness, in his present work, than he would be in the employment of the railroad. Thereupon I strongly advised him to reject the larger offer, and he has done so. My reason was simply that money does not measure one's place in the world, one's mental triumphs, or one's usefulness to humanity."

"But money is a helpful factor in life," I urged, "and is considered indispensable, nowadays, in climbing up the ladder."

"Well," he replied, "if I had a son and a hundred thousand dollars, I would keep them apart."

In the senate a new member is not supposed to take part in debates, or even discussions. The atmosphere is not only dignified, but frozen. I strongly anticipate, however, that there will be a thawing out before long. The presence of Mr. Dolliver ought to act like an oldfashioned depot stove in a cold-storage room.

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